August 13th, 2008

The Teaching-Learning Trinity


By Steve J. Thien, Kansas State University

I have found it significant to visualize teaching and learning not as a duality but as a trinity, a grouping of three processes linked as one. This linking seems to best validate the adage “It hasn’t been taught until it’s been learned.” First, learning to learn leads to self-awareness of learning, described as the essential stage of knowing that guides both teacher and learner in mastering relevant content. Second, teachers learn about teaching so that content can be developed into learnable formats. Third, teachers knowingly combine the first two stages to maximize the opportunity for students to learn and develop as learners. As an analogy, visualize these three stages of the teaching-learning trinity as a three-legged stool. Take away any of the stool’s legs and the stool does not stand.

Learn to learn

If “learning how to learn is life’s most important skill” (as Buzan observed), then teaching others to learn is a teacher’s most important gift. Learning is both a process and an outcome. Understanding learning as a process can enhance the effectiveness of both teacher and learner. Learners who understand learning can knowingly master content. Teachers who understand learning can intentionally pass along knowledge and measure its transfer. Many educational limitations are removed when all those involved understand the process of learning. Seemingly, our higher educational system does not cultivate this tenet but rather expects understanding learning as a process to be acquired through assimilation.

Learn to teach

Learning to teach means learning how to produce learning. In this mode, teacher-centered instructional activities like organization, delivery style, classroom presence and clever techniques cede primary focus to learner-centered teaching. Learner-centered teachers develop an informed teaching style that shifts emphasis from teaching to learning. No one universal best teaching practice accomplishes this goal. Asking which teaching technique is best is analogous to asking which tool is best-a hammer, a screwdriver, a knife, or pliers. In teaching, as in carpentry, the selection of tools depends on the task. Thus if we agree that the primary task of teaching is not to teach but to cause learning, then selection of a learning goal should always precede selection of a practice.

Teach to learn

How can you teach to learn? This phase represents a natural extension of the concepts from the other two segments of the trinity. Knowing how people learn and being armed with an arsenal of methods to advance learning, your content becomes the delivery vehicle. Learning integrates new knowledge from your discipline (like information, skills, relations, procedures, etc.) into a student’s existing knowledge base in a manner that makes it accessible when applied to future activities. A four-item checklist might guide your first steps in this direction: 1) establish learning goals; 2) create learning environments that achieve these goals; 3) assess outcomes to verify learning; and 4) modify goals as necessary to promote success.

My teaching philosophy contains elements of inspiration, guidance, and challenge. I visualize teaching as more than simply ordering and transferring terms, concepts, relationships, and processes in my discipline. Although mastering this basal phase of learning must precede further learning, it seldom inspires either the good teacher or the good student. I must work to illuminate the analyses and deductions involved in ways that stimulate interest and whet the curiosity of learners to develop their own understanding. I should facilitate this development by encouraging students to look beyond the product of their learning to an understating of the teaching-learning process involved. My gift to them will be multiplied into a lifelong tool of far more benefit than the facts of the moment suggest.

Excerpted from: Thien, Steve J. (2003). A teaching-learning trinity: Foundation to my teaching philosophy. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 32, 87-92. We appreciate the gracious permission that allows us to reprint this excerpt.